On February 6, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and the United States will convene in Islamabad for a third round of talks to reach agreement on a roadmap for peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
These discussions, within the format known as the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (or ‘the quad’), represent a step in the right direction to end the decades long conflict that, between 2001 and 2015 alone, has caused over 140.000 casualties and, until the Syrian conflict overtook it recently, precipitated the most refugees per annum for some 32 consecutive years.
China and Pakistan’s participation in the quad indicates that some of Afghanistan’s neighbors perceive a return to stability as within their interests. Both countries are critical partners in this endeavor. Already a significant investor in Afghanistan, China’s multi-billion dollar plans to develop transport and energy infrastructure across Central and South Asia offer at least the hope that Afghanistan can once again serve as a regional trade and transport hub.
Pakistan’s cooperation is further critical to an effective and lasting solution in Afghanistan, because, as many analysts have long argued, elements within Pakistan’s intelligence services have been supportive of the Taliban and are accused of failing to deny the Taliban a sanctuary within Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Particularly with its recently announced $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project, China might be able to wield considerable influence over Pakistan, possibly even persuading the Pakistani leadership to do more to combat cross-boundary Taliban attacks against Afghanistan.
However, the quad faces significant obstacles to initiating a formal process toward striking a deal that is sustainable and beneficial to most Afghans. In part, this is about the timing of the talks. Confronting new pressures, including the fight against the Islamic State (admittedly, in Afghanistan too but mainly in Iraq and Syria), a resurgent Russia, and President Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’, the United States and its Western partners are looking for ways to transition their military presence and to reduce their civilian assistance footprint in Afghanistan. The possibility looms large that any Western-backed—and now Chinese and Pakistani supported—peace deal might seek to legitimize an exit rather than achieve a just and sustainable peace.
While the United States and its Western partners are gradually pulling back, the Taliban now holds more territory than at any point since 2001. Recent Taliban offensives in Helmand and Kunduz provinces, along with frequent terrorist attacks across the country, serve as a reminder that the insurgent group is far from defeated, while Afghanistan’s security forces suffered casualty rates during the first half of 2015 that were 50 percent higher than the same period the previous year. It is thus hard to discern William Zartman’s ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ that would indicate a ‘ripeness’ for peace talks. Nor does the Taliban’s most recent articulation of demands offer, according to analysts, any sign of a willingness to compromise. If formal negotiations ever do start, the group’s internal struggles after the announcement of the death of their leader Mullah Omar might make finding effective interlocutors more difficult.
To improve the chances of fostering successful peace talks, we recommend that the Quadrilateral Coordination Group takes the following actions:
- First, in cooperation with the larger grouping of countries and international organizations associated with the Istanbul ‘Heart of Asia’ Process, the quad must continue to ensure that no concessions are made to the Taliban that threaten the protection of fundamental human rights, especially women’s rights, and Afghanistan’s democratic system of governance. They should further avoid a hasty solution that privileges a narrow definition of stability or ‘negative peace’ (the absence of war).
- Second, it is important that, as peace talks continue, the quad heeds research that shows that peace agreements have a higher chance of succeeding, especially over the longer-term, when they are inclusive, broadly supported by the local population, and involve women actively (while only a precursor to more formal peace talks, women have reportedly not participated in the discussions of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group).
- Finally, integral to an effective peace process in Afghanistan are carefully tailored and substantial investments in the country’s economic future. Parties to any future formal negotiations should maximize the engagement of Afghanistan’s neighbors (who maintain increasing economic stakes in achieving peace) towards fostering a dynamic, job creating Afghan economy. Reaching out to India, which has demonstrated leadership in the areas of donor assistance (for several years, India has ranked among the largest donors to Afghanistan) and business-to-business cooperation within the Heart of Asia Process (where it leads the Confidence Building Measure Working Group on Trade, Commerce, and Investment), would represent a smart first step.
On the latter point, an improved economic situation can increase the Afghan government’s credibility and improve conditions for national stability. Such economic measures could build greater political confidence between Pakistan and Afghanistan, by further “incentivizing peace” for any holdouts in Islamabad. An improved economic situation is also important to increase the acceptability of any peace deal for the Afghan people. Even with the Taliban’s violent resurgence, Afghans, according to the annual Survey of the Afghan People, still rank ‘unemployment’ and a ‘poor economy’ closely behind ‘insecurity’ as their biggest concerns. Last but not least, improvements in Afghanistan’s economic climate can dampen efforts to recruit more militant extremists by offering viable alternative livelihood options.
With these recommendations in mind, the representatives in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group should work to ensure that any ensuing talks toward a formal peace deal give the Afghan people the peace they deserve—a durable and just peace. It is a formidable task, and from both practical and moral vantages, a necessary one too.